On lengthening residency requirements to run for Houston City Council

Houston City Hall (image credit: Ed Schipul/flickr, CC BY SA 2.0)

To file for office as Mayor, City Controller or At-Large Council Member, a person must be a qualified voter of the City who has resided in the City for 12 months immediately preceding the election day. To file for office as a District Council Member, a person must be a qualified voter of the City who has resided in the territory encompassed by the City Council District to be served for 12 months immediately preceding the election day.

– Houston City Charter: Article V, Section 4

Well, well, well, we’re in the latter half of August 2023, and the races for the November 2023 election are starting to heat up. I was mildly irritated to read that former nominal Republicans M.J. Khan and Jack Christie have entered the mayoral race. I am a Republican, but their entries into the race don’t excite me very much. One is because someone who is a Republican cannot get elected mayor just on Republican strength alone. Democrats outnumber Republicans within the Houston city boundaries by a factor of roughly 60-40 / 65-35. In order for a Republican or a conservative-leaning candidate to win, they have to have some kind of crossover appeal to political independents or to some open-minded Democrats. Sadly, I really don’t see that M.J. Khan or Jack Christie have those attributes.

Yet, there is another attribute that both M.J. Khan and Jack Christie do share, which is why I decided to write this epistle. That is, both men have been dogged by the question of whether they were actually residents of the City of Houston when they decided to run for a seat in the City of Houston government. M.J. Khan was hassled over his residency issue back in 2004-09 when he was a councilman, while Jack Christie dropped out of a race back in 2007 because he was dogged by the fact that he owned a house in Bunker Hill Village. Now, both men are running for Mayor of the City of Houston. Jack Christie seems to have taken care of his residency issues, while M.J. Khan’s claims of residency remain a bit more shifty.

On residency requirements in general

Mandating residency requirements to run for public office has always been a bit of a question mark in the back of my head. The appeal is obvious. Do you really want to be a representative of the people around here? You want to rule over us? You want to make decisions about our lives and our money? Well, don’t you live here? If so, how long have you lived here? Are you really one of us? Why are you running for this particular office and why does this office matter to you? That kind of thing. The framers of the United States Constitution thought well enough of them to put residency requirements in for members of Congress.

On the other hand, imposing residency requirements effectively amounts to imposing a barrier to entry to office. One can think of them as a weed-out type of mechanism, but a rather weak one. You do want to leave the door open to everyone who wants to run for public office, don’t you? Do they really result in better representation or better candidates running for office? All in all though, the arguments for residency requirements seem stronger than those against.

That leaves the question: if residency requirements are going to be imposed at all, then for how long should they be for? One clue to look at in City of Houston politics is that the issue keeps coming up over and over again with an irritating regularity. Not only have M.J.Khan and Jack Christie been dogged about City of Houston residency questions, but so has engineer Zaf Tahir (back in 2007), as well as former councilman Steve Le, and former councilman Al Hoang.

One can’t help but notice that the stories surrounding Houston City Council residency controversies often seem rather familiar. They usually feature an older man who has accumulated enough wealth so that he is living in a house in one of Houston’s leafy suburbs (Sugar Land or one of the Memorial-area villages come to mind). Then for whatever unknown reasons, he decides he wants to run for a spot on Houston City Council. He suddenly realizes that in order to be eligible to run for a seat on Houston City Council he has to meet a residency requirement. He usually ends up trying to meet the residency requirement by renting a cheap apartment, which he usually doesn’t live in or spend much time in, somewhere in the district he hopes to represent. Or, if he is running for Mayor, he rents out some place cheap around the city. He is wealthy enough to afford being able to trivially burn off $15,000 – $20,000 paying rent on an apartment somewhere in the city for a year in order to satisfy the residency requirement. Yet, the fact that this stuff occurs generates a bad odor around the candidate in many people’s minds.

In contrast, residency questions rarely come up in state or federal politics. It’s true that John McCain and Barack Obama were both alleged to have not been eligible for the U.S. presidency due to their claimed birthplaces, but such issues in state and federal politics are pretty rare. It’s also notable that not only are residency issues rare in state and federal politics, they are also rare in that there are many more office holders in the Texas Legislature (181) and in Congress (535) than there are on Houston City Council, which has 16 members and one mayor.

The question then becomes why? I would submit that the reason for this is because requirements for state and federal offices are more stiff than they are for Houston City Council. The residency requirement for running for Governor of Texas for example, is five years. For members of Congress, a member of the U.S. House has to be a citizen of the United States for seven years and be an inhabitant of the state from which they were chosen. For Senators, the citizenry requirement is nine years and they have to be an inhabitant from the state from which they were chosen. The residency aspect for federal offices may be more lenient, but the length of citizenship requirements see to it that qualification questions become rare. I would also add that running for state and federal offices means that candidates have to go through political party primaries first to become the chosen candidates, which results in much heavier scrutiny beforehand because would-be officeholders are usually facing a bunch of hot-headed, motivated activists. This type of policing of candidacies does not occur in City of Houston politics, except by other rival candidates and by the often lazy media.

At this point, I am ready to advocate that the residency requirement for running for City of Houston offices should be lengthened to three years. Imposing a requirement of that length would likely be long enough to drive off many questionable candidates for City of Houston office, help assure Houston residents that their local office holders are in it for the longer run, and that candidates would be doing it for the right reasons. Lengthening the residency requirement to three years would require a City Charter amendment, which would have to be either adopted by the Houston City Council or by citizen petition, both of which methods would then require a public vote. Given that council members would look self-serving if they did this on their own, a citizen-driven charter amendment would likely be the vehicle by which this would occur. Yet lengthening residency requirements for Houston City Council would be something that I could get behind and might possibly result in a better governed city.

1 Comment

  1. Though appropriate such a change would have as much chance at passage as the ’97 Amendment to End Preferential Treatment. CoH 65-35 grifter advantage assures failure.

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